Saturday, March 29, 2003

MLB is preparing for opening day as teams are making final roster moves, stadiums are getting fresh coats of paint and baseball fans everywhere welcome another official end to winter and hope eternal for Spring.

The Flagrant Fan will become the Fearless Flagrant Fan and begin four days of predictions. I'll start with the National League East and work my way around the six divisions. So here goes and the nice thing about archives is that at the end of the season, we'll all be able to see how I did:

The toughest division to pick is the National League East. Here is a division of parity with what seems to be mediocre teams. Although the Phillies picked up Thome and have a decent three men in their rotation (Padilla, Millwood and Wolf) they will need help from a Mercado or others. They have a solid lineup except for a true leadoff hitter (Rollins still glories for those 12 homers a year). But the Phillies do look stronger than Atlanta and I will pick them to dethrone the longtime division champs. Here's how I see the teams leaders:

Homeruns: Thome
RBI and Average: Burrell
Surprise of the year: Ricky Ledee
Wins: Millwood with 18
Saves: Mesa with 35

The Braves basically kissed their stay at the top with the passing of Tom Glavine. It was the competition that pushed the Braves pitchers to the top and no pitchers pushed each other like Maddux and Glavine. The Braves staff is just not the same and Maddux has looked mortal in the last year and a half. The Braves lineup looks really ordinary. I still see the Braves strong enough for second place but only with a record a bit above .500.

Homeruns and RBI: Castilla (surprise!)
Average: Andruw Jones
Surprise of the year: Vinnie Castilla
Wins: Maddux with 17
Saves: Smoltz with 50 The Braves would be considerably stronger if Smoltz went back to starting.

The Expos will finish slightly over .500 but will suffer from the no-home field effects. Frank Robinson will have the team ready to play but they just lack the talent to make it beyond third place.

Homeruns RBI and Average: Vlad Guerrero
Surprise of the year: Tomo Ohka
Wins: Tie - Ohka and Vazquez with 16
Saves: Joey Eischen with 19

The Mets will fire everyone after coming in fourth. The Mets just don't have any luck with chemistry and they always seem to put awkward teams together. Glavine will falter away from Atlanta, Piazza continues his average slide (just like Johnny Bench!) and Mo just ain't No Mo. Will the real Robbie Alomar please stand up?

Homeruns: Cliff Floyd
Average: Roberto Alomar
RBI: Piazza
Surprise player of the year: Ty Wigginton
Wins: Al Leiter with 17
Saves: Benitez with 30

Alas, the Marlins could finish last again, but if the stars aligned just right, they could go all the way. They are that kind of odd team. They have great arms and a few good players but they have to gel and they have to have a strong start and put a lot of early wins together.

Homeruns: Juan Encarnacion with 38
RBI: Encarnacion with 110
Average: Ivan Rodriguez
Surprise player of the year: Derrek Lee and Encarnacion
Wins: Josh Beckett with 15
Saves: who knows...Spooneybarger with 20?

Here are some intangibles that could affect the outcome:
Will Larry Bowa keep his team playing for him?
Will Mike Hampton find himself again after his Colorado meltdown?
Will the Mets settle down now that Valentine is out of the way?
Can the Marlins overcome the brutal surroundings in which they play to win?
Will Roberto Alomar and Jeremy Burnitz restore their careers?
Will Maddux have any more great years in him? I bet he does.
Will Andruw Jones finally put together his Triple Crown type talents?
Is Mike Piazza still capable of .330, 35, 110?

That's the great thing about the game. We'll all find out starting Monday.

Friday, March 28, 2003

One reader's reaction to my "Parity" post the other day was to comment that a salary cap would be best for parity much as it has worked for the NFL. The NFL has obtained parity with the system and once powerful teams such as the Rams and the Ravens came back to earth. But although forced parity has the advantage of forcing different teams to the top from year to year, it really dilutes the experience for the fan in a couple of different ways.

The first way that "forced parity" dilutes the fan's experience is that each city's fans must adopt new players to cheer for each year. Teams can only keep about five or six top players and the rest rotate on to other teams. So between trades, free agency, retirements, cuts and the draft, as much as 70% of each team may be new from year to year. It's hard to build up any loyalty that way.

The second way that the salary cap dilutes the fan's experience is related to the first. Two years ago, the Rams were one of the most talented teams in football history and one of the most fun to watch. Their only problem all year was to run into the destiny team of the Patriots in the Super Bowl. They had three great receivers who knew the system, a great running back, a very good tight end, a great defense and a good kicking game. Teams with that much talent are fun to watch. But you can only pay for a few superstars and so have to deal some. Now you have two great receivers and a great running back, but a lot of the others that made all that tick have had to leave.

Another example is the Buffalo Bills having to dump Peerless Price this year. The combination of Price and Moulds was fantastic. Now you have to dump one because Blesoe and Mould's salaries.'m not interested in that kind of parity for baseball. Besides, again, I don't think it's necessary. Someday I'll do a study of all MLB teams over 20 years old and see if I can truly identify a pattern or cycle of success and failure. Just about every team I can think about has had one.

I will concede that the lower payroll teams have a similar problem to teams in the NFL in that they can only keep their superstars for so long. The A's have shipped away Giambi and will soon ship away Tejada simply because they could not afford for a $40 million payroll to have half of that payroll taken by one player. But at least for those teams that develop players and build a good team, the free agency and arbitration rules mean that a Minnesota Twins can keep a young and great group together for a few years before having to let players go.

Next topic: The Schedule.
A few years ago, it was popular to bash the schedule because teams back then didn't face their division rivals more than a few series a year. Now they have "fixed" the schedules so that teams play dozens of games against division rivals. It's great for the Giants to have that many games with the Dodgers or for the Red Sox to have that many games with the Yankees. But then you have to have Twins team play the Tigers and Royals scads of times. Not only is that boring somewhat for the fans but it inflates the Twins success rate and unfairly places them in the race for best record and home field advantage in the playoffs. You then have the winner of a really strong division like the National League Midwest having only 92 wins because all the teams in that division are strong.

Another unfair situation develops with interleague play. The Flagrant Fan does not like interleague play. It's unnatural and it seems more of a circus and exhibition than real games. I'm sure we'll discuss this more when that part of the season begins. But the point is that the outcome of a season may be a result of how tough one team's interleague schedule was compared to their rivals. I seriously believe that the Red Sox chances last year were eroded by having to face Atlanta and Arizona back to back in interleague play.

It is amazing to me that in this computer age, we can't do better with the schedule to do the best humanly possible to create a schedule as fair and unbiased as possible.

Thursday, March 27, 2003

Just a quick reminder that Thursdays are the Flagrant Fan's day off. I will say that I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Texas Rangers decided to keep Hank Blalock and Mark Teixeira on the team. Rookies are fun and you never know who the next great player is going to be. Of course, there is always a person who gets bad news so that someone else can get the good news. Herbert Perry got hurt to open the door for Teixeira.

In another big surprise, Shane Reynolds was waived by the Astros. The former 19 game winner is sure to catch on with somebody quickly and will probably flourish outside of that little Houston band box. The Mets would be a good fit for him.

I'll have a full preview of opening day and make my predictions over the weekend so stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 26, 2003

As the last few days dwindle down to the end of the season, the always interesting transaction wire becomes really fascinating. In the last few desperate days, you can see players trying to hold on to their careers either catch on or fall off the gravy train. It has to be the worst thing about baseball to work all Spring long to earn a job and then in the final last days lose the job you've been trying to gain. There must be a mad scramble to find another slot...a fit somewhere that needs your niche skills or to be blunt has no other options better than you.

So it was for Lou Merloni this week. Nomar Garciaparra's best friend and the Mayor of Boston slipped out of the Red Sox plans and was released. Can you imagine the circuit of emotions as he finds out about his release yesterday and today find out that San Diego picked him up as they had no one else at the moment better than he to fill that infield utility spot.

Let's take a quick look around to see who else is trying to hang on and what their status is:

Frank Castillo was released by the Red Sox today. Castillo has won 11 or more games five times in his ten year career. Two years ago, he was 10-5 (3.59) for Toronto. Last year, he was a very useful 10-9. He'll catch on somewhere.

Brian Dauback and Estaban Loaiza caught on with the White Sox. Dauback played the last few years with the Red Sox after a long minor league career. He is a good player but not exceptional who can hit 20 homers a year for you playing part time. Loaiza has won 60 games in 7 years and is at best a .500 pitcher.

Mike Venafro lost his bid to make the Braves. A lefthanded specialist who has averaged 70 appearances a year will find a job somewhere.

The Cardinals released Joey Hamilton. Wow. A few years ago he was a large free agent bust for the Blue Jays after he had two great seasons in San Diego. The poor Blue Jays paid him millions to win 9 games over two seasons.

The Padres sent veteran Charles Nagy to the minors. I'm sure that if they didn't waive him, they have plans for him in the future. Can you imagine after having won fifteen or more games for the Indians five straight years from 1994 to 1999 to have to bide your time in the minors until you can become useful again in the majors? Man, it's got to be tough.

Pat Mahomes was released by the Pirates. That can't be a shock for him as he has bounced around pretty good for nine years. To show you how long a mediocre pitcher can last in MLB, Mahomes has a career 5.57 ERA over his nine big league seasons. Let's put that in perspective: In 654 big league innings, Mahomes has given up 405 earned runs. But three years ago, the Mets caught a flash and he went 8-0 for them, mostly in long relief with a 3.68 ERA. I would not be surprised if he got another shot by somebody.

And finally, Steve Avery was sent to the minors by the Detroit Tigers. Again, at least he wasn't waived. How many remember that when the Atlanta Braves started this eleven year run of mastery over their division, that the starting pitchers consisted of Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Greg Maddux and Steve Avery? And he won 18 games for them twice! He has sure bounced around since then and has been out of MLB for the past two years. How sad that the 1991 NLCS Most Valuable Player can't even make the Tigers opening day roster.

One more bit of news that made my heart sink: Mariano Rivera is starting the year on the DL. Man. Not a good start for the Flagrant Fan's team.

Tuesday, March 25, 2003

Parity. The problem with MLB is the lack of parity. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The Yankees can go out and get whatever they need while the A's and Pirates are doomed to scrounge around the bottom because they can't afford payroll.

The above paragraph could have been the first paragraph forty years ago in The Sporting News. There has never been parity in MLB. There have always been teams that have consistently fed off the bottom of the standings. The only difference now is the amount of money involved.

But from my perspective, success is a cyclical thing. I can remember when the Cleveland Indians came in tenth place in a ten team American League every single year. This was after a cycle that led them to the great team of the 50's. Eventually, the cycle turned around in the 90's and now they are on the down side again.

The Twins have risen to the top and then a decade of failure and now they rise again. The A's of Catfish Hunter and Rollie Fingers rule the world until Charlie Finley crashed them. They had many, many years of bad times and now have won 300 games in three years. The Phillies have won world championships and have been trough sippers. The same goes for the Pirates.

Let's discuss the Yankees. They have the best market. Yes. They have the most money. Yes. But that does not guarantee success. In the sixties, CBS purchased the Yankees. At that time, how many media companies had more money than CBS? Instead, they ran the team into the ground and from 1965 to 1976, the Yankees were pathetic. During the Munson/Jackson/Billy Martin years, the team hit the top again. Once again, the team hits a long dry spell that lasts until the current five year run.

How would you improve parity in baseball? The draft? Talent means little until it is fulfilled in the major leagues. There are as many first round busts as there are success stories. In fact, there are more busts. Having a good draft is dependent on having good scouting. Scouting is only dependent on the riches of a team to a degree. The rest is dependent on the talent of your scouts. How do you measure that. Why is Oakland terrific at developing young players and Baltimore not? Baltimore has more money, right? It's not about money. It's about systems and personnel and luck.

You already have what results in a tax to the teams that have large payrolls. But do you ever see the payroll on the poorer teams improve any? No. The owners of those poorer teams do not put that money into their system and players. And payroll is no guarantee of success. Recent Mets, Devil Rays, Orioles and Red Sox teams have proven that.

The only true way to think about parity is to really consider who purchases teams. There should be a real emphasis on the viabiltiy of a company or person who wants to buy a team. But how do you do that without error? Four years ago, was there any indication that the juggernaut called AOL would hit such perilous times after (but not because) of buying the Atlanta Braves? You couldn't have predicted that. Who would have known that Enron was going to crash and burn before they put a name on Houston's stadium? Where would the Astros be if Enron had bought the team and not just the rights to the stadium's name?

Lack of parity has always been a part of the game. For every New York Yankees, there's always been a Boston Braves. The Tigers and Royals will rise again. Their cycle will come. There are George Bretts out there somewhere. Somewhere in America (or Japan or Korea or The Dominican Republic) is the next Mickey Lolich and Alan Trammell. The Yankees' down cycle is due as is the Braves'. A surprise team like the Angels isn't really a surprise. It's happened dozens of times in the history of this great national sport.

Monday, March 24, 2003

In my last post, I discussed how good the Red Sox look this year. Though not as strong as the Red Sox, their National League equivalent, the Cubs, have the right manager, a young powerful pitching staff and just enough offense to be dangerous. Could you imagine a double miracle of the Cubbies and the Red Sox in the World Series? The only problem with that miracle is that one of the teams would have to lose and continue their almost status in history.

Dusty Baker is the X-Factor in Chicago. He took a San Francisco team that had one of the unhealthiest duos in history in Kent and Bonds and made it work through his professionalism, his ability to get his players to believe in their chances and get it done...sometimes with mirrors. He is the manager the Cubs haven't had and has the winning tradition that will overcome the negativity that has reigned in Chicago for so long. He will make a difference.

Let's start with Pitching: Kerry Woods and Mark Prior. Man, some franchises never develop a talant as good as one of that pair and they have two of them. The nice thing about the two young talents is that they will push each other. Who is going to be the king of the hill. The Braves have had that competition for a long time and it worked for them. Of Maddox, Glavine and Smoltz, Smoltz had the best arm, but the three of them were a dynamic that stretched each other out to the limit of their talents. Two horses like Woods and Prior can do that too.

But that's not all they have. Clement can be very good. Estes is much better than his horrible season last year. And they have two other young guns in Juan Cruz and Carlos Zambrano. Their bullpen is very deep: Veres, Farnsworth, Remlinger, Benes, Alfonseca and Guthrie have all been there and can do that.

The outfield of Alou, Patterson and Sosa is weak defensively (except in center where Patterson might lose 20 pounds covering for the other two) but should be great offensively. Alou was hurt early last year and it really wasn't until the second half where he was his old self. The only problem here is that they really don't have anyone behind Sosa that can protect him. Bellhorn, Karros (yeah, as if) and others will have to step it up.

Looking at the Cubs on paper, they don't look like much except for pitching. But we'll see what happens.

Sunday, March 23, 2003

One of my colleagues at work thought I was overly concerned with bashing the Red Sox in a recent posting. This co-worker thought that concentrating on the Red Sox failures at player personnel was a low blow. When he sees this column, he will think that I am trying to win back his respect. Despite that misguided notion, that Red Sox look incredibly good this year.

Although I have always been and will always be a Yankee fan, I have lived in New England now for twenty-seven years. All of those years featured local newspapers and local TV and radio that lived and died by the Red Sox. For all of those years, I have had access to most of the team's games either through Channel 38 when I was in New Hampshire, or with NESN since I have had cable in Maine.

That's a long time to watch a team and I have seen some really good ones. The year that Lynn and Rice both came up was a brilliant season. Lynn was incredible and Rice was solid and would be a great player for many years. Together with Calton Fisk, they were a catalyst that propelled the team to great success.

The Yaz years were okay but he was such an unlikeable person that you hoped he would choke in those situations when he did. I also got to watch the great Louie Tiant who was the most creative pitcher I've ever seen. Dwight Evans was the best right fielder I have ever seen and if it wasn't for the strike shortened year when he was the hottest player in baseball, he might have become a bigger star that he was.

Then came the Roger Clemens years. Those of you who have been reading this column might think I have a bit of a Clemens obsession. Face it people, I have gotten to see first hand eighteen brilliant season. Even when he was with the Blue Jays, I could watch the games on Canadian TV. His year in 1986 was similar to Ron Guidry's year in 1978. He was just an unstoppable force. The thing I remember most about both pitchers' great years was that they both were considered power pitchers but they both had the greatest control I've ever seen. They simply put the ball where they wanted it each and every time. Please see my Guidry/Koufax comparison at the end of this posting.

The 1986 Red Sox should have won the World Series and sometime soon I will devote an entire post to why Bill Buckner has been given the worst rap since Shoeless Joe Jackson. The '86 Red Sox were better than the 75 Red Sox who almost beat the great Reds in the World Series. But in both cases, I really didn't think the teams were that impressive coming out of the gate. They had a few superstars but weren't deep. They just meshed and played well.

The current Red Sox team is "Yo Mama" deep and talented. Nomar is finally over his wrist woes. Manny looks focused and in the best shape of his career. Shea Hillenbrand has shortened his stroke and improved (and might not even be the best third baseman on the team! - look for Youklas to come on strong). Bill Mueller has been great and should be terrific. Kevin Millar is going to hit thirty homers and knock in over 100 RBI. Ortiz is a good pickup. Damon is solid and a great leadoff hitter. Todd Walker was a terrific pickup and the best second baseman they've had offensively since Marty Barrett. Giambi could do some damage and someday Trot Nixon might put together a career that lives up to his potential coming up.

I think their pitching looks solid both starting and in the bullpen (although I am not sure about the closing by committee idea). Pedro Martinez looks like Hulk Hogan compared to the string bean he looked like in the past. Lowe is terrific and could have been the Cy Young last year. Knuckleballer Wakefield is probably the most valuable pitcher in baseball and the pickup of Ramiro Mendoza from the Yankees was both a coup for the Red Sox and a DOH! for the Yankees.

The Yankees look good but their old pitchers need to stay healthy. If they falter, the Red Sox could pass them and this year, I don't think they would fade at the end of the year. This could be the year, Red Sox Nation. And if so, I'll cheer them on.

But I'll cheer harder if it's the Yankees at the end...

Ron Guidry should be in the Hall of Fame. That is, he should be if Sandy Koufax is. "Wow!" you say as if I had lost my mind. Well, yes, I concur that Koufax had five of the most dominating years in the history of baseball, but for a career (the measure used in the Hall of Fame), Guidry is right there with him. Koufax had a career record of 165 wins with 87 losses, a .655 winning percentage. Super! Okay, Ron Guidry had a career record of 170 wins and 91 losses. That's a .651 career winning percentage--only .004 points behind Koufax.

Arguably the best Sandy Koufax year was when he went 25-5 with a 1.88 ERA. Guidry's best year was one of the best of all time at 25-3 with a 1.74 ERA. Koufax had three 20 win seasons and five seasons of more than 15 wins. Guidry had three 20 win seasons and six seasons of more than 15 wins. Koufax lifetime ERA was .50 points lower than Guidry's (2.76 vs 3.29) but if you compare the ERA to the league ERAs of each's era, they would be right close together.

Like Sandy Koufax, Ron Guidry had class and made the most out of his smallish frame. Both only flamed for a little while but while they did, they were super lights out good. Put Guidry in the Hall of Fame!